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First Base 

March 17, 2004 | One Saturday morning in August 1998, I received a surprise telephone call at home from J. Craig Venter, who wanted to know if I would be interested in launching a Web-based genomics news portal under the auspices of his new company, Celera Genomics. Foolishly perhaps (in light of Celera's stratospheric stock price a year later), I declined, mainly because I was contemplating writing a book on the genome "race" that Venter had just ignited. Now it was Venter's turn to deliver some bad news: He was granting journalist James Shreeve inside access to Celera for the next two years.

Undeterred, I persevered with my book, Cracking the Genome, which was released three years ago. But only now has Shreeve's book emerged, titled The Genome War (with the unfortunate subtitle How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World). The delay is attributed to Venter's stipulation that no proprietary information be revealed for three years.

The belated result is a fluid and frequently compelling book, with some fascinating insights into the commercial and political wrangling that accompanied the creation of Celera and ultimately undermined Venter's goal of becoming the Bloomberg of genomics.

From private jet to racing yacht, and corporate boardroom to the Celera men's room, Shreeve dutifully recorded the ambitions of Venter and his associates. The birth of Celera itself was not Venter's idea, but rather emerged from an Applied Biosystems board meeting in late 1997, when it dawned on Noubar Afeyan and Michael Hunkapiller that a few hundred of the company's new capillary sequencing machines could sequence the human genome in a few years. Venter was deemed the right man for the job, along with a band of colorful followers including Hamilton Smith, the connoisseur of cDNA library construction; Gene Myers, the Charles Bronson-like bioinformatician who begged to join Celera to prove the experts wrong; Marshall "Mad Dog" Peterson, a former Army helicopter pilot and Vietnam veteran put in charge of the supercomputer systems; and the flamboyantly dressed patent lawyer, Robert Millman, who frequently found himself at odds with his boss.

Aside from the well-documented friction with the public consortium, the internal strife is often as intense. At one point, Myers' team of programmers scrambles to debug a crucial gene-mapping algorithm, the fault finally traced to a rudimentary error in a single line of code. Millman steams as Celera agrees to release its DNA data rather than attempt to patent every gene in sight. And Heather Kowalski, Venter's communications director then and now, storms out of his office when she learns of his furtive negotiations with Francis Collins.

Watching from the sidelines is Tony White, CEO of Celera's parent company, Applera. He is portrayed as a desolate businessman increasingly envious of Venter's gallery of neatly framed magazine covers hanging outside his office, and endless television appearances. "Just once," White fumes while tripping over television cameras during one visit, "I'd like to come down here and not find a film crew."

Disappointingly, the author makes little attempt to cover the many significant developments since the White House declaration, such as the joint scientific publications, the fierce dispute over the legitimacy of the Celera assembly, and the disclosure that Venter was DNA donor #1, all of which merit only a skimpy epilogue. Indeed, Shreeve offers little genuine insight into the motives behind Venter's big adventure. His wife, Claire Fraser, director of The Institute for Genomic Research, makes only a few cameo appearances, usually to rebuke her husband for some crass remark at a cocktail party.

Perhaps the last word on the war of the bases goes to Venter. In a report published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Istrail, S. et al. PNAS 101, 1916-1921; 2004), Venter and his former colleagues at Celera and Applied Biosystems compare their own whole-genome shotgun assembly of the genome, conducted in December 2001 and independent of any public consortium sequence data, with the consortium sequence "Build 34," released last summer.

Venter concludes that "the Celera results provide more order and orientation, and the consortium sequence provides better coverage of exact and nearly exact repeats." This Celera sequence, and its two predecessors, has belatedly been submitted to GenBank "to preserve the historical record and facilitate the ongoing analysis of the human genome."

For reprints and/or copyright permission, please contact Angela Parsons, 781.972.5467.